The Opportunity to Reimagine Public Safety Is Here Right Now. Will Austin Take It?

“We want everything that can be done outside of the police, to be done outside of the police.”

Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images (Photos by David Brendan Hall and John Anderson)

At their April 20 work session, the members of the Austin City Council certainly sounded thankful for the recommendations the City-Community Reimagining Public Safety Task Force had just laid at their feet. Vanessa Fuentes expressed her gratitude. Ann Kitchen promised to study the recommendations. Alison Alter praised the task force members for pouring themselves into the work.

Those whom they'd praised – the community activists the task force comprises – were quite untouched. With the three-hour meeting wrapping up, they wanted to know where they stood.

"It's imperative that we see the city manager's office, staff, council, and the city as a whole make a public commitment," said Mon­ica Guzmán of Go Austin/Vamos Austin.

"We are ready to hold you accountable for what you all have said here today – that y'all are looking to implement this," said Alicia Torres of ICE Fuera de Austin.

And Paula Rojas of Communities of Color United, who co-chaired the task force, said, "We are sure – and you heard us – that we are not wanting our work to end up like other task force reports – they end up on a shelf."

A month earlier, on March 25, the task force members watched Council ignore their unanimous recommendation not to reopen the Austin Police Department's dysfunctional training academy, which has been under heavy criticism since 2019 for its "warrior cop" culture. Its closure, and the deferral of several cadet classes, were the first big steps taken to "defund" Austin's police force after last summer's Black Lives Matter protests.

The task force had wanted time to change the academy's teaching materials and restructure its leadership before it reopened and began to once again add police officers to the force. City leaders promised that they had heard the task force's concerns, but they wanted cadet training to recommence this fiscal year. While the Council vote didn't necessarily surprise the task force members – they've been around the block – it did leave them feeling insulted. Some wanted to walk away from the project. But they recognized the truth of another thing Rojas told Council last week: "This is a historic opportunity, one that only comes once in a lifetime."

Reform and Revolution

The task force's recommendations are the fruit of hours of uncompensated labor by dozens of community members. They've been working on the project since last Aug­ust, when, after the public reckoning with police violence and community trauma, Council committed to reduce APD's $434 million budget by about $155 million for this fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, 2020. Approxi­mately $30 million was freed up by canceling the cadet classes and redirected to community services like family violence prevention, assistance for those in homelessness, and substance abuse treatment.

Another $80 million or so came from "decoupling" programs and functions that don't need to be managed by APD. The two largest of these are the new independent Forensic Science Department, which was created on Feb. 4, and the new Emergency Communications Department, created last week to take over the 911 call center. These two decouplings, discussed for years and now finally accomplished, will cut APD's civilian workforce by more than 250 people.

The remaining $45 million of the promised APD budget reduction was earmarked specifically to "reimagine public safety" – to directly support communities that have been the most harmed by police violence. To help decide how to spend the funds, the council brought together advocates from 17 different organizations who pledged to center the needs of the people in their communities. The advocates in turn brought dozens more people into the process by forming working groups composed of fellow activists and residents with lived experience. From August to April, these groups worked alongside members of City Manager Spencer Cronk's leadership team – that's why it's the "City-Community" task force. They did research, held community listening sessions, and then wrote up their findings in the dense 75-page report from which they briefed Council last week. (You can find these materials online here.)

Taken as a whole, the recommendations constitute a revolutionary document for a city that has long invested more and more of its tax money in its police force, leaving less and less for other services. There are simple ideas, like getting rid of the Mounted Patrol and K-9 units, and complex proposals that organizers like Rojas have studied over a lifetime – community health workers, harm reduction projects, direct cash assistance to needy families.

"The big story is, 'Here's some real recommendations of actionable, creative, innovative, and evidence-based programs that could really move us in the right direction of needing less policing,'" Rojas said. "But will the city of Austin have the courage to do it? You know what I mean? Because we're giving it to them well put together."

Reverse Engineering

Kathy Mitchell (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
“There isn’t a time limit on this process. It was always the case that ‘reimagining public safety’ ... is bigger than a particular budget cycle.”– Kathy Mitchell

Since Feb. 1, callers to 911 have been asked if they want police, fire, EMS, or mental health services. Just Liberty's Kathy Mitchell, organizer of the RPS Task Force's Reimagining 911 and Non-Police Crisis Response working group, would like to go further and divert more than half of current 911 calls to responders other than APD. She would especially like to divert mental health calls from the department, which has a track record of killing and hurting people in crisis. "A mental health crisis, regardless of the shape it takes, is fundamentally not a criminal moment," Mitchell explained. "It might be a disorderly moment, but it's fundamentally not criminal. It's an illness."

Before the RPS Task Force was organized, Just Liberty and other groups conducted an analysis of more than 1 million 911 calls, about 18 months' worth, and determined the vast majority of them could be addressed without police – so they are confident the system can be further improved. Mitchell also wants to train call-takers to better handle calls from those with limited English proficiency, educate the community on how to call for non-police crisis response, and have the city regularly audit 911 calls to gauge the effectiveness of the system. In addition, her working group proposes creating a separate, community­-run first response team that would exist completely outside of the 911 system, for those who will never feel comfortable making that call.

Another major "decoupling" goal for Mitchell is traffic enforcement, which was not originally handled by armed officers when autos first became common in U.S. cities. "My framing for that [goal] is the hijacking of traffic enforcement into other arenas," she said. That includes "using traffic enforcement not to ensure that our roads are safe, but to allow interrogation opportunities, where an officer stopping a person about a failure to signal is [also] interrogating them about where they've been, and where they're going, and they're smelling for marijuana, fishing for a crime."

David Johnson of Grassroots Leadership and his Patrol and Surveillance working group see decoupling traffic enforcement as a start: "We want everything that can be done outside of the police, to be done outside of the police," Johnson said. That includes phasing out the entire $211 million line item in APD's budget for neighborhood-based police patrols – more than half of what remains of the department's funding after this year's planned $155 million in reallocations.

Paula X. Rojas (back row, in the white “no new cops” shirt) and the Com­munities of Color United for Racial Justice crew (Photo by Jana Birchum)
“The big story is, ‘Here’s some real recommenda­tions of actionable, creative, innovative, and evidence-based programs that could really move us in the right direction of needing less policing.’ But will the city of Austin have the courage to do it?”– Paula Rojas

"Neighborhood-based policing – that is posting up in neighborhoods by APD, and them driving around in patrols looking for 'criminals,' for people that they can discretionarily engage – it's one of those things that, for many decades, has been marketed as a preventive measure against crime," Johnson said, "when, in fact, what it prevents is anyone having access to just being safe in their community. It increases the likelihood that people are going to get arrested for things they shouldn't be arrested for."

The proposal to end neighborhood policing is meant to unfold over a number of years. For the near term, the task force recommends $77 million in additional cuts to APD's budget through decoupling or simply ending a variety of programs. These include the Gang Suppression Unit, the Riverside Togetherness Project, the U.S. Marshals' Lone Star Fugitive Task Force, the Park Police, the Mounted Patrol, the K-9 unit, the Lake Patrol (proposed to be converted into an emergency medical services unit), and narcotics interdiction.

Task force members also want to shut down the Austin Regional Intelligence Cen­ter and the Real Time Crime Center, two intelligence-gathering operations, and cut the allowances now reserved for police overtime. The Patrol and Surveillance working group also proposes ending the use of deadly weapons by APD; ending the use of "discretionary stops," in which officers decide spontaneously who to stop and investigate; and banning facial recognition software and the surveillance of citizens in general.

Knowing How to Help

These, presumably, are some of the proposals that Mayor Steve Adler described as "far-reaching" at the April 20 work session. Such ideas were, until the summer of 2020, politically inconceivable, but they would free up enormous amounts of money to meet needs that are increasingly hard to ignore. These include continuing direct payments and rent support to people in need of assistance, something that was piloted early in the COVID-19 pandemic with emergency relief funding from the CARES Act. Such money could also boost funding of Austin Public Health, which, as the coronavirus found its way into Austin's least advantaged neighborhoods, had a budget about 10% of APD's.

For years, nobody at City Hall, or in the civic power structure from which the city's leaders come, ever thought of making such choices or understood the trade-offs, as APD's budget nearly doubled from 2008 to 2020. But Austin's community advocates have been contemplating these choices for a while, and one coalition in particular – Com­munities of Color United for Racial Justice, for which Rojas organizes – has been analyzing how APD's funding could be redistributed to meet people's needs since 2015.

Johnson explained the importance of this activism: "Communities of Color United, for years, have done a people's budget for the city where they take the actual budget – the actual proposed budget – and the accepted budget of the previous year, and they use those to build what the budget should look like for our city, instead of what they're making it look like. [Other groups] were saying, 'Oh, let's take $100 million away, let's take 50 million – those were just symbolic amounts. Because of CCU we were able to sit down and say, 'We actually want to take half of the police's budget. And this is what we want to do with it, and this is why.' And that led directly to the formation of the task force."

The RPS Task Force recommends, as part of several different proposals, establishing "community hubs" – neighborhood centers, staffed by residents, capable of delivering a range of services and connecting community members with resources. This work not only meets needs and reduces tensions that directly contribute to crime, but broadens the conception of community safety across the board. Surabhi Kukke and the Public Health Reinvestment working group have proposed opening five community hubs this year throughout the Eastern Crescent, supported by 50 community health workers (commonly known as promotoras in Spanish, and certified in Texas by the state health department) with lived experience like that of their neighbors.

David Johnson (Photo by John Anderson)
“We want everything that can be done outside of the police, to be done outside of the police.”– David Johnson, Grassroots Leadership

"What if there was a community health worker in charge of a neighborhood," Kukke asks, "knowing all the households in the neighborhood, knowing who's experiencing what? So if there's an episode that occurs, say, in front of the corner store, that community health worker can be called. Every­one in the neighborhood knows this person has de-escalation skills. This person has been trained. They know all the individuals in this neighborhood. They know, probably, what's going on. They can provide that support instead of calling the police."

The hubs would be places where community health workers can connect, collaborate, and get trained. Physicians and nurses would be on-site to provide medical and mental health care for at least two weeks per month. The hubs would be run by community organizers and people from the neighborhood and be stocked with medical supplies and food; they likely would have some overlap with the "resilience hub" concept the city is pursuing as a response to the climate emergency, in the wake of Feb­ru­ary's freeze.

Doing the Opposite

Kukke and her group also want to open centers for opioid treatment with more services than are traditionally found at a methadone clinic. They recommend establishing two drop-in centers in North and South Austin, which would offer medication-assisted treatment programs and function as safe spaces where users could go to get off the street, whether or not they're being treated. The RPS Task Force also proposes establishing 40 safe disposal sites around the city for sharps and syringes *, funding a trauma-informed care training program at Austin Public Health, and quickly building or acquiring 30 100-unit buildings to house people experiencing homelessness, to be supported by trusted providers and peers with lived experience.

Rojas' working group, Equity Reinvestment in Community, imagines the community hubs as sites that could coordinate direct financial assistance to residents, starting now: $1,000 monthly to 200 families in need, managed by local grassroots organizations with help from APH, as was originally envisioned for the RISE (Relief in a State of Emergency) and RENT (Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants) funds established with federal COVID-19 relief dollars a year ago.

Rojas says that many people who qualify for assistance are deterred from getting it by the city's inability to meet people where they are. Talking about the RENT program, which has had trouble getting its dollars into people's hands despite the obvious needs faced by thousands of families on the threshold of eviction, she said: "There's a whole program right now, and it's not being used because of the hoops that people have to jump through to apply. It's so bureaucratic that most families can't do it. People are telling us, 'I can't pay my rent but I can't go through this process.' And that's why we thought, instead of that, let's put the money straight into the hubs, [with] people working there helping other people" – that is, their neighbors – "access this money when they need it in emergencies."

Rojas also wants to see the city invest $11 million in 10 neighborhoods, chosen through a process overseen by the Equity Office, whose director Brion Oaks is the other co-chair of the RPS Task Force. Of that, $1 million would be split between community organizations serving those neighborhoods, with each getting $100,000.

Amanda Lewis of the Survivor Justice Project, whose RPS working group focuses on survivor support and violence prevention, also wants to see more services provided at the neighborhood level while retaining elements of existing systems for those who prefer to take their cases to law enforcement. The group recommends that APD's Victim Services Unit remain located with the department for now but report directly to the chief of police, or to the city executives who oversee public safety, to be in closer proximity to decision-makers. They also would like community stakeholders to work with the city's new Office of Violence Prevention (created last summer after the work of a prior task force on gun violence) to develop its programs.

Lewis sees survivors needing the same kinds of help described by other RPS working groups: immediate cash assistance, with community groups dispersing it; housing assistance, particularly for trans people; and an end to arrests for nonviolent offenses like sex work. The big message, she says, is to broaden our conception of who should get support and to provide it in a multitude of ways. "Everyone should have equal access to things that heal them in the ways that they need it," she said. "And that includes historical trauma, it includes state trauma, violence where there's a new shooting every day – we need to heal from that stuff. And for people who experience rape, domestic violence – the city of Austin has a long history of institutional betrayal of folks who expect support and accountability. So we need to be able to build up other systems and opportunities for healing."

Brion Oaks (Photo by John Anderson)

Lewis, Rojas, and Kukke acknowledge the ways in which their thinking has converged. "All of these recommendations are really connected to each other," Kukke said. "They don't really stand alone. The overarching goal is to offer a counterpoint to the criminalization of our communities, and to [reduce] the space, the distance, between those people who are supposed to help and the people who are actually in need. So if this is the framework – you know, to be evidence-based, prioritizing people, reducing harm, and being trauma-informed – it's sort of the antithesis of targeting and criminalizing."

Changing the Conversation

Across the board, the RPS Task Force members and working groups want to strengthen the city's Equity Office. Since 2015, it's been reviewing the city projects and proposals brought to it through an equity lens – that is, based on whether they appropriately consider the needs and rights of Austinites of color and those in marginalized groups. But the Equity Office does not choose which projects it gets to review. As a result, critics say, it's just a way to put a stamp of approval on projects that are already more or less equitable.

The Uprooting Punitive and Harm Culture in Intersecting Systems work group proposes to increase the Equity Office's budget by $1 million to add four or five salaried positions. It also wants to radically increase the department's power by allowing it to run equity assessments on any project it chooses. It's a simple proposal but one with profound implications.

"What would it look like if the Equity Office assessed the APA contract request?" David Johnson asked, referring to the labor agreement with the Austin Police Assoc­ia­tion that is negotiated every five years through the "meet and confer" process. "This is just one thing, but that one domino would set a number in motion." Johnson envisions the Equity Office providing an assessment on every important proposal to come before Council, which "should be posted and released right along with the agenda. So people in the community can read the report and already have that factored into whatever their testimonies might be."

The task force also wants to improve the city's communication with marginalized communities. Alicia Torres' Meaningful Com­munity Engagement working group recommends using commercials on radio, TV, social media, and billboards to alert members of the community to issues that are coming before Council. "Folks don't know what conversations are happening on a city level because they don't know that an agenda exists," Torres said. "If it's not on the net, if it's not in the newspaper, if it doesn't come across people's social media timelines, they don't know the conversation is happening."

Torres wants the city to simplify the language on its website and translate it into Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Burmese, Arabic, and other languages. She wants to make it easier for residents to sign up and speak before Council, and she wants Council members to agree to work harder to engage their constituents, to contact them after votes and detail how they voted, how many people participated in the process, and how that input was used.

A Need to Live Differently

In theory, the work of the RPS Task Force is done – but its members feel there is much left to do. "There isn't a time limit on this process," Mitchell said. "It was always the case that 'reimagining public safety,' the concept there, is bigger than a particular budget cycle."

But after Council dismissed their recommendations for the police academy, members of the task force are not in a trusting mood. They specified three conditions that must be met before they will continue their work: Council must not return to APD any of the $45 million in reimagining or $80 million in decoupling funds; it must not fund the cadet class it is considering commencing in June; and it must commit to only use reimagining funds on proposals recommended by the task force.

Amanda Lewis (Photo by Jana Birchum)
“The city of Austin has a long history of institutional betrayal of folks who expect support and accountability. So we need to be able to build up other systems and opportunities for healing.”– Amanda Lewis

Spencer Cronk first outlined the RPS process, including the role of the task force, in late June 2020, one month after the Black Lives Matter protests began. Those protests were met by an outburst of violence from APD, and Rojas worries that the task force was created more to soothe the community than to enact real change. "The only reason that they even are doing this is because they were pressured by the community, and then the [BLM] uprisings," Rojas said. "They thought, 'Let's create this process to kind of appease the community.' I think they thought it would be a win-win. 'Let's all do this together to deflate the outrage and the protests.' And I think we're saying we don't want to be part of that. We're not willing to be window dressing. You know, it's either for real or it's not."

Johnson likens the police academy vote to infidelity in a marriage. He said he understands why the council members took the vote – he believes they're afraid of losing their next election – and he knows they have a delicate choice to make. But if their choice lets him down, he's ready to walk. He stresses, however, that the city needs the task force, perhaps more than they realize.

"While there are companies moving here to Austin, Austin needs to keep its face looking good," he said. "So Austin needs to have a Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, and it needs it to be one that is respected." On the other hand, Johnson insists, the groups represented on the task force don't need the city of Austin in order to do what they have to do. "We need to move them, but we can get things done without the city. They can't get this done without the task force. So could you imagine the fallout if the city disrespected the task force again, now with even more attention being paid? What would it look like for the city of Austin, trying to do PR work, to have a media blitz showcasing how they ignored their own task force?"

Rojas hopes Council will choose to travel the path the RPS Task Force has so carefully laid out. "These are really historic times where we all need to live differently," she told members on April 20. "This is like never before in our lifetime, and what I feel is ... it's like we're living with our hearts in our hand. Which means to take true risks. Obviously, there's another side that doesn't want these recommendations to go through. But if you bring the longer historical view, you know that right now is a time where it's possible. It's actually possible to transform."

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, this sentence originally read "40 safe injection sites," which is a different (and controversial) harm-reduction strategy that was not recommended by the RPS Task Force. We've revised to clarify and regret our error.

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Austin City Council, Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, Monica Guzman, Alicia Torres, Paula Rojas, Austin Police Department, Forensic Science Department, Emergency Communications Department, Spencer Cronk

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